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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

13 Words That The Author of "25 Common Words That You’ve Got Wrong" Got Wrong

Most “you’re using English wrongly” articles have a lot of errors, and yet people love to share them.

The latest example, shared by 3 people on my Facebook:

25 Common Words That You’ve Got Wrong

This one was particularly egregious, since I spotted several glaring mistakes.

So I've consulted the OED, "The definitive record of the English language" to correct the writer (whether you believe dictionaries are prescriptive or descriptive with regard to usage, either way he's still wrong):

3. Ultimate

What you think it means: The one, the only. The best.
What it really means: The last item of a list...

That is actually the proper use of ultimate. There is no other context or added context. It simply means the last one.


"Putting an end to further continuance, development, or action; final, decisive."
"Forming a final stage, point, or limit; beyond which there is no advance or progress."
"Beyond which no advance can be made by investigation or analysis; forming a limit or final stage in respect of nature or quality; fundamental or elemental."

Granted none of these senses explicitly means "The one, the only. The best", but they come a lot closer to it than "The last item of a list".

This is to say nothing of how ignorant saying that there is "no other context" is of any common English word (or indeed, probably any common word in any language) - the OED lists 6 general adjectival senses of the word. None of which, incidentally, is "the last item of a list".

5. Peruse

What you think it means: To skim or browse.
What it really means: To observe in depth.


"To examine in detail; to scrutinize, inspect, survey, oversee; to consider, to take heed of. Now also (influenced by sense 4c): to look over briefly or superficially; to browse."
"To read through or over; (generally) to read. In later use also: to browse, skim."

Notably, there is also a note here (which I have never seen before in the OED):

"Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perh. influenced by the word's earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly (cf. senses 4a, 4b). However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness. Cf. scan v. for a similar development and range of senses."

8. Nauseous

What you think it means: To feel ill.
What it really means: To cause feelings of illness.

This is another understandable mishap that a lot of people make. If you actually feel sick then you are nauseated. The object that made you feel ill is nauseous.


"orig. U.S. Of a person: affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach; (fig.) disgusted, affected with distaste or loathing."
"lit. Of a thing: causing nausea. In later use: esp. offensive or unpleasant to taste or smell."

So here the writer is taking the literary meaning as the only correct meaning.

11. Terrific

What you think it means: Fantastic, good.
What it really means: Horrific, to inspire fear.

This is another one that we expect will be changed in the dictionary eventually because barely anyone uses the real meaning anymore.


"Causing terror, terrifying; terrible, frightful; stirring, awe-inspiring; sublime. Now rare."
"As an enthusiastic term of commendation: amazing, impressive; excellent, exceedingly good, splendid."

Here, we can see that the author subscribes to the etymological fallacy and takes a view of language as eternal and unchanging (maybe he thinks 'nervous' should mean 'strong and vigorous'), even as senses fall out of use.

Especially notable is that the sense he calls "wrong" has its first example sentence from 1871. And his "right" sense has its last example sentence from 1914.

12. Effect

What you may think it means: To cause something to change.
What it really means: An event that causes a change.

OED (n):
"That which results from the action or properties of something or someone; results in general; the quality of producing a result, efficacy."
"As a count noun. Something accomplished, caused, or produced; a result, consequence. As a count noun. Something accomplished, caused, or produced; a result, consequence. "

OED (v):
"To bring about (an event, a result); to accomplish (an intention, a desire)." (there are examples of this usage from 1581 to 2000)

This is especially bizarre, because the common usage of the noun effect is not "an event that causes a change" but rather "the outcome of a change".

13. Disinterested

What you think it means: Bored.
What it really means: Neutral.


"Without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned. (Often regarded as a loose use.)"
"Not influenced by interest; impartial, unbiased, unprejudiced; now always, Unbiased by personal interest; free from self-seeking. (Of persons, or their dispositions, actions, etc.)"

The "wrong" sense is attested from as far back as 1631, up till 1970.

14. Irregardless

What you think it means: Without regard.
What it really means: Nothing.

... Irregardless has been used so often that it actually is in the dictionary now and that’s kind of sad. Even though it is technically there, there are a large number of people who don’t consider it a word.

One wonders just how this person thinks words come about and what he considers the Gold Standard for the English language (maybe "my own prejudices").

To paraphrase Dan Brown,

"The English language did not arrive by fax from heaven. The English language is the product of usage, my dear. Not of self-righteous authors. The English language did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the language"

15. Chronic

What you think it means: Severe.
What it really means: Over the course of a long time.


"transf. Continuous, constant. Used colloquially as a vague expression of disapproval: bad, intense, severe, objectionable; also something chronic adv. phr., severely, badly." (examples start from 1861)

Sure, when you talk about an illness you shouldn't use "chronic" to mean severe. But for everything else, it's fair game.

17. Decimate

What you think it means: To destroy or annihilate
What it really means: To destroy ten percent.

This one is really goofy and one day this won’t be true. For the time being, decimate actually means removing only ten percent of something. If you know a little bit about words it’s not difficult to figure out. The prefix “dec” means ten. However, the traditional definition of this word is antiquated and it’ll probably be changed eventually. Until then, it’s technically correct to use a word like exterminate or annihilate instead.

OED (1894, not fully updated):

"To kill, destroy, or remove one in every ten of."
"rhetorically or loosely. To destroy or remove a large proportion of; to subject to severe loss, slaughter, or mortality."

Oxford Dictionary:

"Kill, destroy, or remove a large proportion of"
"Drastically reduce the strength or effectiveness of (something)"
"historical Kill one in every ten of (a group of people, originally a mutinous Roman legion) as a punishment for the whole group"

This item annoyed me the most and was what prompted me to write this blog post.

Approximately no one uses "decimate" to mean "to destroy 10% of" anymore.

Since the writer subscribes to the etymological fallacy, I shall propose a 26th Common Word That You've Gotten Wrong:

26. Hysterical

What you think it means: Characterized by convulsive emotion or excitement
What it really means: Describing a woman whose womb is dysfunctional and so goes crazy

19. Fortuitous

What you think it means: Lucky.
What it really means: By chance.

Oxford Dictionary:

"Happening by chance rather than intention"
"Happening by a lucky chance; fortunate"

It is one thing to say a word can mean something different. It is another to say that it MUST mean something different.

20. Plethora

What you think it means: A lot of something.
What it really means: More than is needed.


"Usu. with of. Originally in pejorative sense: an excessive supply, an overabundance; an undesirably large quantity. Subsequently, and more usually, in neutral or favourable sense: a very large amount, quantity, or variety."

Examples come from 1835 to 2003.

Here we see that "more than is needed" is not even the primary meaning now.

23. Can

What you think it means: What is permissible.
What it really means: What is possible.


"To be allowed to, to be given permission to"

Interestingly, one of the examples here is from Lord Tennyson's play The Falcon: "Can I speak with the Count?"

25. Obsolete

What you think it means: Old, out of date.
What it really means: Not produced, used, or needed.


"No longer used or practised; outmoded, out of date."

The examples make this more clear:

"Two female servants, whose prim and obsolete appearance were perfectly consistent with the venerable aspect of the place of their habitation."
"On the Pacific station..we have one obsolete ironclad, the Swiftsure."
"Nothing is more hazardous in military policy than rigid adherence to obsolete ideas."

So we can see that "Old, out of date" still works as a definition for "obsolete".

Ironically, the author ends the article with the lines:

"The English language is a finicky one but it’s also ever changing. Words are updated and definitions change. New words are added every year and some are retired."

It looks like he should take his own advice and keep up with changing definitions (as well as some old ones that never went away).
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